Fathers of the Church

Epistle XI: to the People

Description

Cyprian argues in this epistle that it is gravely wrong to give Holy Communion to the lapsed who have not yet confessed and performed due penance for their sin. He exhorts the faithful to guide the lapsed to follow his judgment in this matter.

Provenance

During the Decian persecution, five Carthaginian priests who opposed Cyprian from the beginning of his episcopate were admitting large numbers of Christians who had denied their faith back into communion. The confessors of Carthage had issued a general indulgence to allow any lapsed Christian whom they had examined and approved to return to communion with the Church. While Cyprian respected the judgment of the confessors, he did not want to place those lapsed Catholics on a higher level than those who had remained faithful, without giving them due penance. He wrote this epistle from his retreat during the persecution to clear up the confusion of the faithful.

by Cyprian of Carthage in Circa 250 A.D. | translated by Unknown

[Argument.—The substance of this letter is also suggested in Epistle XIV, "Among the people also," he says, "I have done what I could to quiet their minds, and have instructed them to be retained in ecclesiastical discipline."]

1. Cyprian to his brethren among the people who stand fast, greeting. That you bewail and grieve over the downfall of our brethren I know from myself, beloved brethren, who also bewail with you and grieve for each one, and suffer and feel what the blessed apostle said: "Who is weak," said he, "and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not?" And again he has laid it down in his epistle, saying, "Whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member rejoice, all the members rejoice with it." I sympathize with you in your suffering and grief, therefore, for our brethren, who, having lapsed and fallen prostrate under the severity of the persecution, have inflicted a like pain on us by their wounds, inasmuch as they tear away part of our bowels with them,—to these the divine mercy is able to bring healing. Yet I do not think that there must be any haste, nor that anything must be done incautiously and immaturely, lest, while peace is grasped at, the divine indignation be more seriously incurred. The blessed martyrs have written to me about certain persons, requesting that their wishes may be examined into. When, as soon as peace is given to us all by the Lord, we shall begin to return to the Church, then the wishes of each one shall be looked into in your presence, and with your judgment.

2. Yet I hear that certain of the presbyters, neither mindful of the Gospel nor considering what the martyrs have written to me, nor reserving to the bishop the honour of his priesthood and of his dignity, have already begun to communicate with the lapsed, and to offer on their behalf, and to give them the eucharist, when it was fitting that they should attain to these things in due course. For, as in smaller sins which are not committed against God, penitence may be fulfilled in a set time, and confession may be made with investigation of the life of him who fulfils the penitence, and no one can come to communion unless the hands of the bishop and clergy be first imposed upon him; how much more ought all such matters as these to be observed with caution and moderation, according to the discipline of the Lord, in these gravest and extremest sins! This warning, indeed, our presbyters and deacons ought to have given you, that they might cherish the sheep committed to their care, and by the divine authority might instruct them in the way of obtaining salvation by prayer. I am aware of the peacefulness as well as the fear of our people, who would be watchful in the satisfaction and the deprecation of God's anger, unless some of the presbyters, by way of gratifying them, had deceived them.

3. Even you, therefore, yourselves, guide them each one, and control the minds of the lapsed by counsel and by your own moderation, according to the divine precepts. Let no one pluck the unripe fruit at a time as yet premature. Let no one commit his ship, shattered and broken with the waves, anew to the deep, before he has carefully repaired it. Let none be in haste to accept and to put on a rent tunic, unless he has seen it mended by a skilful workman. and has received it arranged by the fuller. Let them bear with patience my advice, I beg. Let them look for my return, that when by God's mercy I come to you, I, with many of my co-bishops, being called together according to the Lord's discipline, and in the presence of the confessors, and with your opinion also, may be able to examine the letters and the wishes of the blessed martyrs. Concerning this matter I have written both to the clergy and to the martyrs and confessors, both of which letters I have directed to be read to you. I bid you, brethren beloved and most longed-for, ever heartily farewell in the Lord; and have me in remembrance. Fare ye well.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland beginning in 1867. (ANF 5, Roberts and Donaldson). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.